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Washing dishes by hand vs. machine


Green Dilemmas

Can using a machine dishwasher be more sustainable than washing dishes the old-fashioned way? We take a look at the time, energy and costs involved in washing dishes by hand vs. using a machine. You may be surprised by the results.


Energy costs

The sloppiest of hand-washers — who let the water run the entire time — can spend up to $85 a year and expend 840 kilowatt-hours of electricity just to heat the water while doing dishes.

In contrast, an older non-efficient dishwasher will cost around $29 a year to run and use 284 kilowatt-hours.

To put those numbers in perspective, the average PGE customer uses 10,384 kilowatt-hours a year for their entire home.

On the other hand, a conservation-minded hand-washer, who fills two sinks half full, one for washing and one for rinsing, will spend just $13 a year and use 132 kilowatt-hours.

But a newer efficient dishwasher — if you turn off the heat cycle — easily competes with the best hand-washer, at $14 a year and 135 kilowatt hours, and can handle more dishes than a sink’s worth.

Advantage: Dishwasher


The whole point of washing dishes is not just to get them clean, but also to kill germs and bacteria. Dishwashers are capable of using high temperatures of water to kill germs. In hand-washing, you can only make the water as hot as you can handle, which is most likely not hot enough to kill germs. You could use a bleach rinse when hand washing, but that just introduces a harsh chemical into the mix. 

Though many machine dishwashing detergents contain harmful phosphates, greener, phosphate-free alternatives do just as good of job cleaning dishes.

Advantage: Dishwasher

Water use

The average machine dishwasher will use 6 gallons of water per cycle; efficient models can use as little as 4 gallons.

The average faucet flows about 2 gallons of water a minute. So, in order to compete with the machine washer, you would need to wash the equivalent amount of dishes without letting the faucet run more than two minutes.

Advantage: Tossup, depending on how efficient the hand-washer is


The time it takes to hand-wash dishes depends entirely on the washer and his or her efficiency. It could take up to a half hour to hand-wash, dry and put away a family dinner’s worth of dishes.

It takes just a few minutes to load and unload a dishwasher, but a complete washing cycle can take up to two hours. However, the dishwasher saves you time because it does most of the work for you.

So, if you need your dishes right away, you might want to hand-wash them. Otherwise, go for the dishwasher.

Advantage: Dishwasher

Up-front costs

All you need to hand-wash dishes is some soap and a rag or sponge. A bottle of soap to hand-wash dishes is around $2, and could cost less than $1. Assuming you go through a bottle of month, you will spend around $24 a year on soap.

A box of machine detergent is more expensive and probably doesn’t last as long. On top of that, you have the cost of purchasing the dishwasher, with energy-efficient models ranging from $250 to more than $1,000.

Advantage: Hand washing


There’s something to be said about standing over a sink of warm, sudsy water quietly meditating or conversing with a family member. But the efficiency of a machine dishwasher cannot compare unless you are the most diligent hand-washer. So, load up that dishwasher, turn off the heat cycle, get out of the kitchen and know you are still living sustainably.


PGE Switch Labs, switch.portlandgeneral.com/dishwashing/dishwashing; WiseGeek, wisegeek.com/is-it-better-to-hand-wash-dishes-or-use-a-dishwasher; Rodale, rodale.com/washing-dishes-dishwasher-vs-hand-washing; Treehugger, treehugger.com/kitchen-design/built-in-dishwashers-vs-hand-washing-which-is-greener